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7:04AM

Raiders: A brawl, a rain storm, a victory

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — Where did Ken Norton watch the game? We know that for the first time in three seasons it wasn’t from the Raiders sidelines. We also know that the Raider defense, the one under the direction of Norton until early last week, on Sunday finally recorded its first interception of the season — in the 11th game — and Oakland played its best defense in a while.

How much did that have to do with head coach Jack Del Rio dumping Norton as defensive coordinator and replacing him with John Pagano? How much did that have to do with facing the quarterback-challenged Denver Broncos?

Maybe some of both. Maybe none of either. After all, the talk was that Del Rio really makes the calls on defense.

He or Pagano made the right ones on a rainy Sunday at the Coliseum. At least until the fourth quarter. It was Oakland’s game from the start, and then, whew, after a great call and maneuver on a third-and-eight from the Raider 15 with two and half minutes to go, Derek Carr to Cordarrelle Patterson for 54 yards, it was Oakland’s game at the end, 21-14.

It wasn’t the Patriots the Raiders were playing. Or the Redskins. Or even the Colts, teams that had beaten Oakland. But the victory cannot be dismissed. Especially with Kansas City losing again — five of the last six — and leaving the Raiders at 5-6, only one game behind the 6-5 Chiefs.

The teams play in two weekends at K.C., where Oakland never wins. Still, with the New York Giants coming to the Coliseum on Sunday, and even the 49ers beat the Giants, the Raiders would appear in better position for the playoffs than a few days back.

“Nice to be able to deliver,” said Del Rio, “and come out with a hard-fought victory.”

And he didn’t mean the near-brawl that began some three minutes into the game, when Oakland receiver Michael Crabtree, carrying a year’s grudge, went after Denver cornerback Aqib Talib, apparently because last season Talib grabbed a chain hanging from Crabtree’s neck.

Before anyone knew it, they and numerous others were punching and grabbing along the Broncos’ sideline. When the battling finally stopped, Crabtree, Talib and Oakland guard Gabe Jackson had been ejected. “We can’t afford to lose one of our top receivers and then our starting guard," said Del Rio. “I like to count on my guys to do the right thing.”

Which their teammates did on the field, on defense, Denver gaining only 51 yards its first 10 offensive plays, and on offense, the Raiders totaling 348 yards, 67 of those on 26 carries by the guy nicknamed Beast Mode, the local, Marshawn Lynch — who also caught three passes for 44 yards.

“We wanted to possess the ball,” Del Rio said — which definitely they managed to do, keeping it almost 36 minutes of the total 60.

“We wanted to run the ball,” he said. “I think I made a statement earlier in the week that Marshawn coming back from the one-game suspension, I feel like he’s come back with more purpose, resolve, whatever it might be. He’s come back operating in a way that’s good for us. Very decisive and very purposeful about his running and approach.”

You’d never find out as much from the subject himself. Lynch rarely talks.  

Crabtree was tossed, and Oakland’s other key receiver, Amari Cooper, was leveled in the second quarter by Darien Stewart on what was called unnecessary roughness. Cooper left with what was believed to be a concussion.

“It was a vicious hit,” Del Rio insisted. “The kind we’re trying to remove from the game. Those are the kinds of impact hits that don’t need to be part of the game. The guy is clearly defenseless and got targeted right in the head.”

The Raiders will learn more about Cooper‘s recovery and about Crabtree’s penalty as the days go. What they already learned was that, when needed, they can perform.

“We had all three phases contribute,” said Del Rio. “When you’re dropping four punts inside the 10 like we did tonight, that’s a good thing for field position. Offensively, when you‘re able to rush 37 times, that means we were possessing the ball.”

He neglected specifically to point out passing, quarterback Derek Carr going 18 of 24 for 253 yards and two touchdowns.

“I thought there was a certainty, decisiveness. Play fast. Play very fast.”

And, of course, win.

8:57PM

Are Warriors bigger than 49ers, Raiders?

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — This always was NFL territory. The 49ers were an original, created in 1946, the first major league team in the Bay Area, home grown, home owned.

The Raiders also began here, in 1960, and they put Oakland on the map and in the minds of a sporting public back east that previously didn’t know Jack London from Jack Spratt. If you lived in Oakland, or San Leandro, you no longer had to explain, “Near San Francisco.”

The Niners reinforced their standing as the region’s team of choice with five Super Bowl wins. The Raiders became as notorious as they were successful, and suddenly black became the color of choice.

So popular was football you’d see kids throwing and catching one in the parking lots before baseball games of the Giants and Athletics.

Has there been a shift in preference? When asked to rank the teams in order of importance, the decision was Niners first, Giants next, Raiders third, Warriors fourth, Athletics fifth and solely because hockey, as exciting as it might be, didn’t have the weather or conditions required, the Sharks sixth.

But now I wonder. Yes, the Niners finally won a road game Sunday, beating the Bears in Chicago, 26-20, thus keeping the Faithful faithful. And here in Oakland, after a morning rain, the Raiders drew 55,010 fans to O.co Coliseum, where, unfortunately, the team showed with a 34-20 loss to Kansas City that it’s not as good as hoped. 

Indeed, football is big. But bigger than the Warriors, the sports story of the late fall in Northern Cal — or maybe everywhere? With their remarkable season-opening win streak, now up to an NBA record 22, after they beat the Brooklyn Nets, 114-98, Sunday? With their wonderful talent named Steph Curry who, with apologies to Tom Brady or Cam Newton, may be the single most exciting athlete in the land, and unquestionably is the most exciting around here?

Yes, I was at O.Co Coliseum for the Raiders. I also watched the Niners, and I contended that despite the problems with Jed York, with Colin Kaepernick, with the departure of Jim Harbaugh, they still are worthy of the main headline. It was a losing debate. “You’re wrong,” said the Chronicle’s Ann Killion. “The Warriors are the team.”

Raider Nation still is very much with us. The Black Hole remains (although after Sunday‘s loss it’s as blue as the color of the Warriors’ road uniforms). Niner fans cling to the memories of Montana, Young, Rice and Lott, believing the past is prelude to the future. TV ratings for both 49ers and Raiders are solid. And yet...

The football teams are mediocre at best. The win over Chicago put the Niners at 4-8. The loss to the Chiefs — “The game got away from us,” said Oakland coach Jack Del Rio — left the Raiders at 5-7. Neither is going to the playoffs.

But, ah, the Warriors, perfection, 22-0. Never been done before. Ever. Historic. Fantastic. The defending NBA champions very well could win a second straight championship. The team of Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Milpitas and Marin. The Warriors resonate. But how much?

Basketball, like baseball and hockey, suffers from a multiplicity of games. Right now, certainly, each Warriors game has a place of its own, as anxious fans wonder if the next one will be the one they finally, inevitably lose. This is rare. This is wonderful. This is keeping us attentive.

This is transforming one of 82 into one of a kind, similar to what happens in the NFL. Each game has a special significance. The Raiders came into Sunday at 5-6, the Chiefs 6-5. A Raider victory would have changed the season for each team. We buy into that “Any given Sunday” idea because, yes, any given Sunday, or Monday or Thursday, does have an effect on a team, on a season.

So you heard Del Rio, after the Raiders squandered their lead by allowing KC three touchdowns on a combination of Derek Carr interceptions and long returns, say, “Tough way to finish. Promising afternoon. It just got away from us.”

He meant the game. We could also interpret it to mean the season. “The last four drives,” sighed Del Rio, “were three turnovers and a missed field goal.”

Those descriptions also apply in basketball. The missed field goals and turnovers by the Warriors didn’t hurt them. For the opening five weeks and 22 games of the 2015-16 season, nothing has hurt them.

They have become the darlings of pro basketball, the darlings of the Bay Area. But are they bigger than the 49ers or Raiders? Easier to say how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

9:24AM

S.F. Examiner: Carson Raiders lack rhyme, reason

By Art Spander
San Francisco Examiner

LOS ANGELES — The Raiders are not here. At least I could not find them. Neither are the Chargers. Nor the Rams. Nor a new stadium. What they have here, in the suburbs of Inglewood and Carson, is a battle to get an NFL franchise and a lot of talk about spending millions of dollars for a team which never might arrive.

They’re already planning for a Super Bowl. Not involving a local team, since one doesn’t exist, but a local stadium, although that doesn’t exist, either. They’ll have one, we’re told, but don’t book your seats yet. Don’t do anything until all an earthmover moves earth some place.

Read the full story here.

© 2015 The San Francisco Examiner

8:01PM

Is there a future for Harbaugh, Kaepernick with Niners?

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — He had the look of a man who had just swallowed a lemon. Or a huge loss. Colin Kaepernick stood at the podium with his headphones and without any meaningful answers.

The 49ers' season has gone down the drain, and it’s not unfair to suggest that Kaepernick’s career has also.

On the first play from scrimmage, Kaepernick threw an interception. On the last, in a finish that was all too symbolic, he was thrown on his backside, sacked.

In between, on this Sunday of tectonic shift, the Oakland Raiders climbed from their embarrassment of a week previous, a 52-0 loss, and stunned the Niners 24-13 at O.co Coliseum.

What a crushing, painful time it’s been for the Niners, battered on Thanksgiving night at their own venue, Levi’s Stadium, 19-3 by the Seattle Seahawks; caught in the constant tumult involving the future of head coach Jim Harbaugh; then getting embarrassed by a team that had won only once in 12 previous games.

And somewhere in the maelstrom was that tweet from team president Jed York, immediately after the defeat by Seattle, apologizing for the performance, or lack of same, against the Seahawks.

These are the conclusions one jumps to after the rapid flow of recent events: Harbaugh will not return for a fifth season as the man in charge of Niner fortunes. Kaepernick has been exposed as a quarterback who sees only his primary receiver.

Kaepernick was and is Harbaugh’s guy, chosen in the second round of the 2011 draft, a brilliant athlete who can throw a baseball more than 90 mph and in football can elude tacklers. Until, admittedly, they surround him in a well-planned pass rush.

When Alex Smith incurred a concussion midway in the ’11 season, Kaepernick took over, and with his speed and arm gained Harbaugh’s endorsement.

The following year, the two of them had the Niners in the Super Bowl, although San Francisco’s defense was the real reason, and in the game itself, the final play, Kaep demonstrated an inability to feather a pass, firing away an incompletion.

Over the last few games this season, Kaepernick and the Niner offense — one and the same — were ineffective.

Defensive coordinators in the NFL are well paid to develop designs that take advantage of every offensive weakness. It certainly appears they’ve figured out how to shut down Kaepernick.

The Raiders are in no way among the better defensive squads — on the contrary, they’re among the worst — but they sacked Kaepernick five times (including that ultimate play), picked him off once and limited him to 18 of 33 passing for 174 yards, a quarterback rating of only 54. Derek Carr, the Raiders' rookie QB, was 22 of 28 for 254 yards and a 140.2 rating.

Unsuprisingly. Kaepernick’s post-game comments offered little explanation of what was wrong and why. He has become notably reticent, almost as if being interrogated by an enemy solider rather than a few harmless journalists.

“We haven’t played well,” said Kaepernick, as if anyone holding a note pad or a microphone was under the impression they had.

Kaepernick did concede on that opening scrimmage play he was trying to find receiver Michael Crabtree, and the safety, Brandian Ross, “came over the top.” But he wouldn’t allow that the interception, so quick and jarring, had effect on the rest of the game.

“You leave that play behind,” said Kaepernick, an ironic choice of words because when Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski kicked a field goal eight plays later the Niners were left behind, 3-0.

Although San Francisco would carve out a brief 7-3 lead, there was a sense the Raiders were in control and the Niners, about to fall to a record of 7-6, were in trouble. Once Donald Penn caught a touchdown pass from Carr on a tackle eligible play, the 49ers were out of the lead.

Harbaugh was hardly more illuminating than Kaepernick as the coach fielded questions equally divided between the game result and his own future.

When asked about Kaepernick, Harbaugh — a former quarterback himself — understandably was not going to toss his man under the bus, particularly on a day when Kaep had been tossed under the defensive line so many times.

“I look at it as a team effort,” a subdued Harbaugh said about Kaepernick’s failing, “and we didn’t get it done.”

Not at all.

Asked if York and general manager Trent Baalke want Harbaugh, under contract, to be coach of the Niners in 2015, Harbaugh responded, “My priorities are: No. 1 winning football games; No. 2, the welfare of our players, coaches and our staff; and lastly what my personal future is.”

When a journalist wanted to know if he had coached well the last month, Harbaugh said, “You have to take responsibility so it falls on me if we don’t win these games. That’s my No. 1 priority, winning football games.”

The Niners, who next face Seattle — all hope will be gone with what seems a certain defeat at the Seahawks’ place — are in a very tenuous spot. Maybe so is Harbaugh.

Asked if he wanted to be with the Niners next year, Harbaugh repeated a previous remark, “My priorities are winning games.”

Something that has become very, very difficult of late.

7:33PM

Will Raider mess ever be cleaned up?

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — The question is not whether the Raiders are broken. We know they are. It’s obvious. It was obvious before they fell to 0-6 on Sunday.

They can’t stop anybody, and in football if you can’t stop anyone, can’t play defense, you have no chance. That’s understood.

But how can the Raiders be fixed? Can they ever be fixed? To look back and blame it on the late Al Davis doesn’t do any good, except maybe for some vindictive sorts.

If Al made some bad draft picks, if Al kept trying to play 1980s football in the 2010s, railing against him in 2014 doesn’t help the situation.

For the second game under interim coach Tony Sparano, in control only for two games, the Raiders hung in there, at times played effectively. But against a better team, which the Arizona Cardinals are — a very good team, at 5-1 — bits and pieces are not good enough. Oakland was beaten 24-13 at O.co Coliseum.

What you need to succeed in football at any level are a defense and a quarterback. In rookie Derek Carr the Raiders very well may have that quarterback, the man who can lead them into the future. But they don’t have a defense.

They haven’t a defense for years.

“We put ourselves in position to win,” said Sparano. “But we didn’t win. In the 140-odd plays there are eight or nine that are critical. You’ve got to make those plays to win. We have to get better on third down. We have to get off the field.”

They have to stop the other team when it matters. The Cardinals had 15 third-down plays on Sunday. On nine they made first downs, 60 percent.

They never relinquished the ball. They had it for almost 37 minutes of the 60, and while possession time is not always a determining factor in this game — as was the case in last weekend’s against the Chargers — it certainly was.

The opposition just grinds up and down the field, holding the ball, holding the game. Is there an individual to blame?

Mark Davis, Al’s only son, is the one in charge, the team president. But he’s not really a football man as was his late father. Mark hired Reggie McKenzie to fill that role. It appears he hasn’t done it very well.

For two years Oakland and McKenzie were hobbled by the salary cap. Then, before this season, his third, he signed veteran free agents who have not done much, if anything, except earn huge salaries.

Do the Raiders start over? Does Mark Davis hire new executives? People with a plan? Or at least a plan that  might be better than the one installed by McKenzie?

Dennis Allen, a defensive specialist, was McKenzie’s choice as coach. He was fired at the end of September, four games into his third season.

Maybe he didn’t have the players. Maybe he couldn’t be a head coach. The team has been more competitive under Sparano.

However, Sparano is the interim coach. Who will replace him? And does Oakland replace McKenzie?

Where to begin? When to decide? Do you clean house? Do you stay patient?

Charles Woodson is in his 17th season. He played safety on Sunday as he has forever, with the Raiders after he was the fourth player picked in the 1998 draft, then with the Green Bay Packers where he helped them win Super Bowl XLV, then in 2013 back to the Raiders.

He’s old. He’s still competent. In the second quarter, Charles Woodson, 38, 1997 Heisman Trophy winner, intercepted a pass thrown by Carson Palmer, 34, 2002 Heisman Trophy winner.

The Cardinals probably will have Palmer for a while. Woodson’s days are not so certain. He does provide good quotes.

“I think it’s pretty much snowballed on us,” said Woodson of a season that supposedly had promise and now at almost the halfway point doesn’t even have a single victory.

“We had a close game that first game (a 19-14 loss to the Jets) and it felt like we were on the right track. We just weren’t able to capitalize on that first game. We haven’t been able to put four quarters of football together. But again, third downs, on both sides of the ball, are really killing us.”

Not as much on offense as on defense. If you rarely have the ball, you’ll never have any rhythm. If the defense is ineffective, you’ll rarely have the ball.

“We didn’t do the job on third downs,” repeated Sparano. “Some of that we have to look at scheme. Some of that we may have to look at players.”

Some of whom were signed by McKenzie, who was signed by Mark Davis, who got the team as a legacy. They’re all in it together, and what they’re in is a mess that some way needs to be cleaned up.